Best-Of Advice

On being smart and bored

I’m lazy and I have the attention span of a chicken. Somehow I’ve managed to collect pretty diplomas (with zero debt, by the way) and I am now in the middle of getting a phd in a shiny top 10 institution. But I am still lazy and unproductive and easily distracted. I avoid challenges all the time. Sometimes I feel like I got this far academically because I was a good student so why not keep studying forever? I continue to half ass everything and get away with it by being just smart enough that people can’t tell whether I have reasonably limited abilities or if I’m just not even trying. I have a very mediocre scientific career ahead of me. I tried therapy, I tried prescription drugs, I continue being a lazy ass who would rather do literally nothing the entire day. You seem like a focused, energetic, disciplined, hard-working person who didn’t rest on being the smart kid. Are we just not made of the same thing?


We’re made of exactly the same thing. I know what you’re about, and I understand why you hunkered down in a PhD program. Your problem isn’t that you’d rather do nothing. It’s that you’ve got nothing better to do. You’re smart and bored, so you figure why not get a doctorate in self-loathing?

Obviously, you haven’t found your thing yet. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. It ain’t science, that’s for sure. I mean, yeah, you’re good at it, but you don’t give a fuck one way or the other. It’s another passionless life choice made while walking the path of least resistance.

You’re passionless, but that’s not the same thing as being lazy. You’re still showing up and getting the work done. You always will. It’s always the bare minimum, but again, I know how you think. It’s on them, not you. If someone needs to get more work out of you, all they have to do is raise the minimum expectation. You’ll meet it. That’s the deal you’ve made with yourself. That’s the great rationalization that justifies your existence.

So, stop calling yourself lazy. You’re not. You’re just smart and bored, and you’ve made the boredom a part of your identity. Don’t do that. Separate yourself from the boredom. The boredom is your enemy. I’m not saying you should run out and find something to be passionate about (you ain’t there yet), but at the very least, stop acting like the boredom is an inevitability. It’s not.


25 thoughts on “On being smart and bored

  1. Kirsch says:

    What if I’m exactly like this, only I can’t claim to be incredibly intelligent, and I found a career I actually love, but I’m paralyzed by boredom or anxiety and do the exact same thing- get easily distracted and procrastinate for hours- every day?

    • The Coquette says:

      Same thing. Separate yourself from the boredom and anxiety. That is, don’t let the label of “easily distracted procrastinator” become a part of your identity.

      • Milda Bandza says:

        How do you separate yourself from the boredom and anxiety? Therapy? Hobbies? I’m also over here trying not to identify as another “easily distracted procrastinator” and feeling like I’m in a rut lately.

        • Zoulvisia says:

          Habits. I’m not perfect at this myself by any means – lately, in particular, I’ve been letting my habits slide – but in my opinion the crucial thing is to pick one small, improving routine and commit to it. Then, once it’s habit, go to the next one. For example: in the morning, instead of getting up and opening the computer to idly surf the internet, I’ll read an intellectually stimulating book instead (for x pages or y minutes). Picking up a hobby can definitely fall under this umbrella as well, but I recommend approaching it all as habit-building. And taking it easy. Mindless time-wasting, in all its incarnations, regardless of its motivations, is a pattern of behaviour. It’s so seductively easy – it gives you no mental, emotional, or spiritual resistance – that of course it can easily take over your life. Then it becomes a self-reinforcing thing, because the idea of how much time you’ve wasted/are wasting increases your paralysis and self-contempt, and that drives you to retreat even further into the numbing, avoidant pattern of behaviour. So for me, the best way to combat it is to start with achievable little pieces of a new pattern of behaviour (“I’m going to do x thing at y time with z parameters, every day” vs. “I’m going to stop being such a procrastinating loser”). Being able to hit the achievable goal makes me feel better about myself, and, once it becomes a true habit, it offers as little mental/emotional/spiritual resistance as any mindless time-wasting activity. Then I move on to the next thing. And sometimes I backslide, but that’s okay too.

          • Kirsch says:

            This is a good idea. I had way too many New Year’s resolutions one time, so I tried to do spread them out by adding a new one each month. For example: in January I’d start exercising x times a week, in February I’d exercise x times, plus draw every day, in March I’d keep doing the first two, but also read every day, and so forth. It worked at first but by May I was too overwhelmed to do everything and it fell apart. One month wasn’t enough to make each thing a habit. This year my only goal was to read 50 books and I’m actually on track.

          • Milda says:

            Thanks Zoulvisia! I hear similar things from friends & family a lot, but it always helps to hear it from an outsider. Habits are crucial, I guess I’m just having trouble finding inspiration to maintain old habits or committing to new ones. Maintaining a better sleep schedule would be a good start.

        • kate says:

          Focus on the moment – the physicality of the moment, sounds, feelings, sensations. Be fully present for whatever it is you are doing. Don’t think about what was before or what comes next or where it all fits in the big picture, except at appointed times when you’re deciding what to do next.

  2. Margo says:

    Hey! Actually if you haven’t already been tested you should look into ADHD. Specifically, inattentive type. Procrastination, difficulty concentrating, avoiding mental challenges even though you’re smart, and internalizing all of it as character flaws. Anxiety and depression are often comorbid because of the internalization. Often undiagnosed in women (I’m guessing here). Here you go:


    • I have always been anxious, easily bored, easily distracted, low-energy, disorganized, and a major procrastinator. I start projects and don’t finish them unless something serious is riding on it. I wasn’t diagnosed with ADHD until my 40s. I’d thought all those traits were just flawed parts of my identity, but it’s so wonderful to know that treatment can help me live more normally. (Still working on the right combo/dosage of meds.)

      I can clearly see all the signs of it from my childhood, but there were several reasons I wasn’t diagnosed until just recently. I’m an inattentive type. I’m female. I wasn’t climbing the walls and was obedient, especially in class. I was also a gifted child and was able to do well in school even with the disorganization and procrastination.

      This sounds similar enough to warrant a screening.

      • Margo says:

        I know, right? I just got diagnosed at 29 and this post rang so many bells with me. Especially the internalization: “this is just part of who I am”. I wish the other commenters would pay attention to us.

      • OP says:

        Hi, it’s me. Yes, it’s *very* similar. As I said in another comment here somewhere I did a ADHD test recently but I was not conclusively diagnosed. Is it okay if I ask what kind of medication you are on? Maybe I need to discuss my current medication with my psychiatrist.

    • OP says:

      Hey, thanks. Yes I’m female. I actually did a ADHD test very recently. My therapist said that the results are not conclusive of ADHD, but that the test I took is much more specific than sensitive. I am not entirely convinced I don’t have some form of ADHD, but my therapist is a very good professional and I trust his judgement. I do take medication for low-energy and depression.

      I wrote to coke in a panicky fear that disinterest and lack of passion are dooming my chances at a fulfilling future. I try not to internalize everything but it’s such a major part of who I am, it has shaped and defined my experiences deeply. I hope coke is right and that I will find myself eventually.

      • Margo says:

        Not conclusive sounds… inconclusive? I dunno I mean far be it from me to diagnose a stranger on the internet.

        Do you feel uninterested and dispassionate about what you do? Or are those code words for “I procrastinate a lot so I must not really want it”? Do you wish you weren’t such a procrastinator or do you wish you didn’t have a bunch of science shit to do all the time?

        It may be a hard question to answer because the lines might be super blurry but I think if you can figure that out it should help indicate whether the problem is neurological, behavioral, or situational. Personally if you had asked me what my deal was six months ago I would have said “no I love my field I’m just kind of a self-indulgent and undisciplined asshole enabled by privilege and an above average but unexceptional intellect.”

        That’s who I’ve been for almost 30 years. But it turns out I have a subtle developmental neurology issue with impulse control and mental organization, a mere confusion which caused me to construct a self-loathing identity around my inability to make myself do things I wanted or was expected to do.

        ANYWAY. Depression also causes similar issues around executive dysfunction, poor attention, and disinterest so it could just be that. Because depression, anxiety, and adhd are so often comorbid it’s notoriously difficult to untangle a correct diagnosis. But some people say that if you’re on anti-anxiety meds and/or anti-depressants and they don’t markedly affect the issue, that suggests trying adhd.

        If you read about adhd and it really resonantes, it’s worth getting a second opinion. If it doesn’t, then it doesn’t. Trust your gut. This may also be helpful:

  3. JC says:

    I almost feel like I could have written this except that I made it through the PhD and all the way through to a fancy tenured position before I deflated. What is killing my motivation is a lot of patriarchal bullshit that forces women to work harder to get less done. I know I will never live up to my potential because the powers that be make it near to impossible. I am considering whether to look for a job where I can be a bigger fish in a smaller pool rather than be the low woman on the totem pole at a fancy place. I don’t want to sit on my ass taking a paycheck for another 15 years.

    • Rainbowpony says:

      Leave. I was in the same situation. It’s worth it, and just the change and the feeling of agency in changing will make it worth it. Then get a different job and figure out what you want to do next. It’ll be great.

      • JC says:

        Thanks for the encouraging words 🙂 It is unfortunately not a trivial matter to change jobs at the senior level, but I am keeping my eyes out. Sometimes I just want to sell all my shit and travel the country in a camper van, but I’m sure that would get old quickly. There’s also that novel I keep meaning to write, ha.

    • OP says:

      Oh gee, just to think that I could one day get as far as tenure (which right now feels absolutely impossible) just to continue facing the same problems… I’m scared.

      • JC says:

        Yeah, sorry. If you are having a tough time motivating yourself now, it will be that much harder when you realize you cannot get any traction against the raging narcissists who will eat your lunch any chance they get. The winner take all atmosphere is suffocating, and the old white men in power don’t seem to be going anywhere soon.

  4. CL says:

    plan your escape, clearly delineate for yourself your skill set including your soft-skills that are likely being undervalued in your current position, start to re-establish your network of friends, acquaintances that you’ve likely let lapse – craft an exit strategy and leave –

    I was in exactly the same position md, phd, academic hospital position, awards and in a toxic, no-win situation. It took 2 years of planning and working but now that I’ve been out for only 4 months I realize how narrow and stifling my life had become. I’m back to being the person I was in graduate school, engaged, interested, enthusiastic – alive


    • OP says:

      Hey, I have no actual proof of this, but I’m the person who submitted that. May I ask what are you working on nowadays? Is it still in some way sciencey?

      • CL says:

        what i am doing now is quite specific to me and heavily financed by my savings, a reduction of my family’s consumption and my ability to work as an MD for brief stints to fund my new thing that is a bit of science and a lot entrepreneurship – having said that I would encourage you to think about what you like about science – is it benchwork, is it reading and knowing, is it clarifying concepts and teaching, writing – once you can answer what you enjoy about science it will be easier to see lateral opportunities that use your skills without having to follow the PhD/tenure track/academic route – alternatively you may find that there isn’t a single thing about science that is actually that meaningful to you but that you feel the need to stay in science as you committed so much time/money/effort and also derive a sense of who you are as a person from the label of being a “science person” – its hard to step off the smarty pants pedestal but I would encourage you to take that step if you cannot see a satisfying path for yourself in science – best

  5. CC says:

    I feel this deeply, it’s like reading about myself.

    This is such a helpful thread and I don’t have much to contribute other than nodding my head vigorously and sharing what I’ve learned the odd time I’ve been motivated.

    The thing is, taking on a PhD is a terrible idea for your mental health – you have too much time in your own head and every bit of progress feels like such a tiny step. It messes with your head even if you went in with an extremely clear idea of what you wanted to get out of it. But it’s fine if you didn’t, too.

    One helpful comment somebody told me is that plenty of others will be better but nobody will be quite like you or like me. So even though academia in particular does need certain boxes checked (PhD at top institution completed within x number of years, y number of publications) I think the trick is not to think about all you have to do to even just catch up with your peers because that’s always going to be a dead end. Anyway, if they’re post-year 3, they probably hate their research too on some level, but may have developed better coping mechanisms because in all likelihood they genuinely had to work hard at school/uni. The times I have managed to knuckle down and even enjoy my work are the times when I’ve forgotten about whether I love it and just saw it as the thing I’m doing right now. I’m constantly worrying about the future and whether I really want to be a stuffy old professor, spending half my time in pointless faculty meetings and the rest reading about and teaching things I sorta like but not really, and that’s if I even get a good position! – but I’m beginning to realise it’s counterproductive. (Also, the holidays are tremendous and conferences mean you get to travel, so there’s that.)

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